Led by conductor Gretta Taylor since 1974, the Marionettes Chorale is one of the Caribbean’s leading performing arts groups and a national icon in Trinidad & Tobago. The first choir to be formed in newly independent Trinidad and Tobago in 1963 — and still the longest-surviving in the country — it quickly distinguished itself in Trinidad and Tobago’s Music Festival and internationally. The Youth Chorale was launched in 1995 for young people in secondary school and university. In 2012, it incorporated a Children’s Choir for young singers eight and up. The organisation began a long and fruitful partnership with Amoco (now bpTT) in 1972, and was officially incorporated as a non-profit in Trinidad & Tobago in 2005. The group’s 100-odd singers and most of their multi-generational artistic and production teams have been entirely volunteer.
The choir was founded in 1963 by Jocelyn Pierre and June Williams-Thorne to compete in the 1964 Trinidad and Tobago Music Festival. It competed intermittently in the biennial festivals until 1980, adjudged on each occasion as the Most Outstanding Choir. After 1980, the choir turned its attention to testing their mettle on the international scene. Competing against the world’s finest choral groups, the Marionettes won several awards and made many trips to winners’ row at international choral festivals, and also earned the praise of such distinguished musical figures as John Rutter, Philip Ledger, Andrew Carter, Gwyn Arch and Dr. Havelock Nelson.
The choir has toured extensively in Britain, the Caribbean, and North and Central America, receiving standing ovations from capacity audiences at prestigious venues like St Martin-in-the-Fields in London and the Hall of the Americas in Washington. At home, the Marionettes have hosted visiting choirs: the senior chorale appeared with the Carnegie Mellon choir (Ohio, USA), and the Youth Chorale with the Juniata College Choir (Pennsylvania, USA). The choir hosted visiting young string players from the UK who formed part of their 45th anniversary orchestra (2009) and again for Carmen in 2011; two string players also joined them for the 2014 and 2015 productions of Les Misérables.
The Marionettes regularly raises funds for charity, and in the last 10 years has donated nearly TT$3 million to Trinidad and Tobago charities, in aid of victims of domestic violence, regional hurricane relief efforts, cancer treatment and prevention, mentoring and rehabilitation programmes for at-risk youth, care for those with HIV/AIDS and the terminally ill, and the restoration of national monuments.
Throughout the year, they partner with organisations from all sectors of society to present fundraising concerts; guest at charity events; and often host a gala fundraiser at their holiday Christmas with the Marionettes concerts. A highlight for Marionettes in those series is also the traditional special Saturday matinée, a free performance for senior citizens and children from institutions across the island, which care for some of our society’s most vulnerable – including orphanages, hospices, nursing homes, and facilities which care for the differently-abled.
Over the years, many children’s and school choirs have guested at Marionettes concerts. In 1995, the Youth Chorale was formed to give young performers a serious musical outlet and environment. The Youth group expanded to include a Children’s Choir in 2012. These talented youngsters have come from over 50 schools, and are singers, dancers, actors, choreographers and instrumentalists who also have been outstanding exam performers, some going on to win national and international scholarships like the prestigious Rhodes, Commonwealth and Fulbright awards. Among them are also Music Festival, Panorama, and Junior Calypso Monarch winners. The youth ensemble is a vital social tool, and a wonderful setting in which young people can grow and explore their talents while making new friends and finding new mentors.
Since 1974, the Marionettes has been led by Gretta Taylor as Artistic & Musical Director, and founder-member Joanne Mendes as Production Manager, with an artistic and production support teams which have grown over the years to include Susan Dore, Judith Gonsalves, Enrique Ali, Jacqueline Smith, Caroline Taylor, Lisa De Caires, Michelle Tardieu-Attale, Wendy Jeremie, Arielle Rostant, Dr Roger Henry, and several others serving on various committees and with invaluable portfolios — many volunteering their time and expertise.
Under Taylor’s leadership, the choir has developed a repertoire that spans a wide range of musical styles, from 16th-century Gabrieli to 20th-century Messiaen, as well as spirituals, gospel, international folk songs, calypso, opera, musical theatre, and full-length productions like Carmen; and Les Misérables. It has always championed Trinidad and Tobago’s music, which it has performed extensively on overseas tours.
The Marionettes was the first to blend choral voices with steelband with the PanAm North Stars in 1966, and have been accompanied by many top steel orchestras – PanAm North Stars, Trinidad All Stars, Desperadoes, Skiffle Bunch, and their sister organisation, the Renegades. Composers including the late Dr John Havelock Nelson, Stewart Hylton Edwards and Alma Pierre have dedicated original works to the choir.
As a result, the Marionettes has become a fixture on the local performing arts scene — for both music lovers and theatre lovers. Their mid-year productions typically either introduce premieres of classical works, musical theatre or operatic productions, while their annual Christmas concert — always the first weekend in December — is an anticipated treat for music lovers and Christmas enthusiasts. Faithful audiences, now spanning generations within families, were the first to coin the phrase “Christmas begins with the Marionettes”.
Crucial to the longevity of the choir and its contribution to the community is the support of bpTT (formerly Amoco), which has sponsored the Marionettes for since 1972. “BP Trinidad and Tobago has been keenly associated with the Marionettes for an incredible [number of] years, and with each year the partnership has reached new heights of achievement. We are grateful for the opportunity to work with this group on projects that heal both mind and body, and we are happy that others can benefit through this partnership,” explained BP’s Robert Riley in 2012. Added Marionettes production manager Joanne Mendes: “Without that support, the challenge of sustaining the choirs over a long period would have been a hundred times harder. This has been a model of thoughtful, well-targeted cultural support by a major corporation in Trinidad & Tobago.” For several years, TTT Ltd (and its predecessor the Caribbean New Media Group) and Flow Trinidad have also served as media sponsors.
In addition to founding the dynamic youth groups, and with an eye for self-sustainability, the choir launched the Marionettes Property Fund in 2001 to raise funds to build their own home. In 2006, Murchison Brown – then Mayor of Port of Spain and a founder member of the Marionettes – presented the Chorale with the deed for a plot of land. In 2016, all planning permissions and approvals for the Property Fund were approved.